12/23/2014 02:08 pm ET Updated Feb 22, 2015

Plague Plots: Dispatches From Geraldine Brooks

"Person of the Year" 1666 -- Anna Frith, the hero of Geraldine Brooks' Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague.

To escape present-day harsh realities, one might do well to turn to literary portrayals in which lives are elevated. In Year of Wonders, the lives of those who care for the afflicted, and comfort the dying, are elevated.

Readers' lives are elevated by the wondrous descriptions and depictions conveyed through the detailed recollections of Anna Frith, the young, down-to-earth but high-minded, widowed housemaid, who has lost both her young sons to plague. To contend with her losses, she becomes a soother, a calmer, an herbalist, a naturopath -- a healer and a deliverer.

For most of the novel, Anna's realities are harsh and unrelenting, but they yield a chronicle: "The mind of a healer, I thought, should not brim so with images of death. And yet some memories cannot be rooted out like weeds, no matter how much one wills to do it."

To suppress those painful images, if only for an hour, Anna explains, I "lose myself in someone else's thoughts." She has learned to read. In books, she finds "the greatest relief from the burden of my own memories."

The Year of Wonders
Time: Summer of 1665 through the Fall of 1666.
Place: an English village about 120 miles north of London, where hardscrabble lead mining and shepherding take a toll even before the plague.

Inspired by the extraordinary self-imposed quarantine of Eyam, Derbyshire (actually known, locally, as "The Plague Village"), Brooks' evocation should have readers wondering how 21st century villagers might vote (with their feet) if they anticipate that two-thirds of their community's population would be dead within a year. Readers are put to wonder how any community would grapple with grief and fear; how faith, relationships, and social order would survive -- if at all.

Plague tokens
The reader is meant to see and smell them; even feel them. There's "a lump the size of a newborn piglet... shiny yellow-purple pulsing flesh." The afflicted (Anna's boarder) shivers, sweats, drenches the pallet on which he writhes piteously. "He cries out in pain from the massive boil," which eventually slits and bursts -- "issuing forth creamy pus all spotted through with shreds of dead flesh. The sickly sweet smell of rotting apples is gone, replaced by a stench of week-old fish." The thrashing subsides; his mouth is "all crusted with sordes" -- his raving gives way to delirium.

Having lost her toddler, Anna must watch her other son succumb: "it seemed as if the flesh inside of him was dying while he yet breathed, the putrefying meat pushing and bursting its way out of his failing body."Anna explains that in applying poultices "it is the hardest thing in the world to inflict hurt on your own child, even if you believe you act for his salvation."

The novel may be prescient for its descriptions of Bubonic ravagings conjure up what we now know of Ebola's hemorrhagic deaths: the toddler's body "had leaked its life's blood from his throat and bowels."

Disposing of the dead
No more plots, even slivers of space, are left in the rectory cemetery. No more "planed timbers" are to be had; no time or hands to fashion coffins. Families simply carry their loved ones to fresh-dug trenches wherever the earth can be turned to a sufficient depth. Some bodies "are dragged thither with a blanket slung beneath the armpits of the corpse."

While word can still be conveyed from the outside world, there's news from London: cartloads of bodies being tipped and tumbled atop one another; separated by only a few spades of soil before the next deposit to the great pit's "layer-cake" of corpses.

Londoners with the means to flee lie about where they come from, in the hope of finding sanctuary away from the contagion.

In the village, the unmistakable "rhythmic swish and thump of the sexton's shoveling" is all too familiar to those already enduring a "surfeit of suffering."

Should I stay, or should I go
Anna rightly credits the rector for the village's self-quarantine - its self-sealing "voluntary besiegement."

In a don't-do-unto-others plea, the rector calls on consciences that recognize a responsibility beyond the village's Boundary Stone borders: "If all who have the means run each time the disease appears, then the seeds of the Plague will go with them and be sown far and wide throughout the land until the clean places are infected and the contagion is magnified a thousandfold."

"How would we repay the kindness of those who received us, if we carried the seeds of the Plague to them? What burden would we bear if, because of us, hundreds die who might have lived?.... here we must stay. Let the boundaries of our village become our whole world."

Anna explains, we "learned to live in the prison of our own election."

Provisions from outside, to confine the agony

The rector convinces the villagers not to spread the seeds of plague by fleeing and infecting those beyond the village boundaries. To spare themselves hatred, when their greatest need is love, he implores, "Stay here, in the place that you know, and in the place where you are known."

The rector had arranged with a benefactor to supply the village with all its needs, as a condition for staying put.

When the plague has exhausted itself, the rector offers this blessing: "If we have done anything at all here, we have succeeded in confining this agony amongst us."

Bringing life out of confinement

By great necessity, Anna, who is skilled at lambing, must become a mid-wife. There are vivid descriptions of birthing ewes and humans: breech births, navel cords, and glistening afterbirth. Still more engaging are Anna's accounts of her trepidations: Can her life-saving talents reach beyond livestock?

"The news my fingers brought me was first good, and then bad.... There was no doubt now; the baby lay crosswise. A black panic started to rise in me." Imagining a trusted voice telling her to use her "mother-hands," she re-enters the blocked canal. "Gently then, so gently, I explored the tiny body of that unborn baby, fingering the knobs and curves to see if I could make sense of them." With gentle investigation, and anatomical discernment, she eases and tugs, eases and tugs - and brings life into being.

And, she's a life preserver: She tries to find "kinfolk willing to care for the newly-orphaned or soon-to-be so - no easy matter, especially if the child was already sick."

Through those ordeals comes satisfaction and self-realization: One of Anna's two callings is to "go on, away from death and toward life, from birth to birth, from seed to blossom."

Epidemiology, vintage 1666: a second "calling"

The rector's saintly wife plots the death toll on a map of the village "to grasp how this pestilence spreads, and to whom." She and Anna discern that the plague "selects the very young over the very old." The "silver hairs" seem to have immunity - built up as "sickness veterans."

As Anna spoon-feeds a mash to a toothless, bent old soul, who sits in the dark, "spare from lack of nourishment and most glum in spirits." His claw-like hand takes her arm. His rheumy eyes fix on her, and in a quavering voice he asks: "Why should one like me, who is weary of his life and ready for harvest, be spared, when all the young ones are plucked unripe?"

Why is it that the plague fells some and yet not others? How much more have we learned in 350 years?

With the data as to who has been felled and who has been spared, Anna and the rector's wife turn the rectory kitchen into "an alchemist's den" where Anna is comforted by "the thump" of her knife - "the tattoo became the hopeful music of healing."

In that apothecary, the two women extract "virtues" from all manner of plants that may "ease the suffering of the afflicted" and "more important, but far less certain in its outcome, bolster the defenses of the well."

Ounces of prevention, even if no cure

Anna's communal caregiving began when she made rounds applying cold compresses to reduce fevers and hot compresses to ease the shivering. She made infusions to purify the air in small ill-smelling sickrooms. She "carried away the pans of bile and piss and sweat-drenched rags."

Dire circumstances elevate her to still more significant rounds. With keen instincts and devotions, Anna and the rector's wife conduct careful let's-see-what-works experiments with all manner of roots and warts from a physick garden that villagers viewed with suspicion and superstition. They decoct the virtues from a wide range of herbs and botanicals (warts, roots, leaves) to nourish and fortify those who remain healthy - to strengthen those who might continue to resist the contagion.

Though a day is "filled with mortal illness and the grieving of the recently bereft," Anna finds some solace in "the abatement of the death roll." Little comfort, though: "We are brought to a sorry state in which we measure what is good by such a shortened yardstick."

Women's Work, no wonder
Through the wonder of teas, tonics, and salves, Anna becomes an advocate for "medicine that does not rely upon tearing at the body with sharp probes and blistering cups like the barber-surgeon." It may be that through Anna, Geraldine Brooks (in this prodigiously-researched historical 2001 novel) wants readers to seek out "medicine" that "strengthens and nourishes," developed by detecting "the nature of disease: how it spreads, and to whom, and how its course runs like or different in this person or that."

It seems clear that Brooks champions women in medicine, as a way to decrease maternal and infant mortality. Anna observes that in some cultures, there are husbands who still bar other men from attending their wives' sickbeds - "seeing their wives die rather than send for assistance" of a medically-trained male.

Finally, a stray thought:
Is it pure coincidence -- a wonder -- that, in 1666, Anna Frith winds up in Oran, on the Algerian coast, the very site of the Bubonic epidemic depicted so vividly in Albert Camus' 1946 novel The Plague?